|'Harvard Man' misses the hoop|
By Eric Neel
Page 2 columnist
Page 2's "Critical Mass" is a weekly survey of what's happening at the busy intersection of sports and pop culture:
Race and sex aren't abstract ideas in "Black and White," they're real practices and poses taken up by folks who are hip to the pleasures and are confronting the costs of crossing traditional lines. And basketball, like music and film, is part of the high-stakes interplay of power, desire and envy.
It works because Toback is willing to abandon the idea of a tight, linear story in favor of introducing ideas (even if he doesn't quite know what to make of them or exactly what to say about them), ideas that we all know, but would rather not admit, are in play in American pop culture every day.
I first saw it alone, in an empty theater in a forsaken little shopping mall in Iowa, and I came out afterward on fire with questions I wanted to ask and arguments I wanted to get into, hungry to be in a room full of folks who didn't look like, didn't know, didn't trust, and couldn't take their eyes off, each other.
"Harvard Man," Toback's new movie about an Ivy League hoopster caught up in a plot to fix games, has some of the same raw energy that "Black and White" did, but almost none of its heat and pop. There are quick-cuts and interesting games with time and perception, but where "Black and White" had an experimental filmmaking edge that highlighted intense intersections between people, the same kind of stuff in "Harvard Man" seemed only loosely tied to vague ideas about being "out there" -- about taking risks and experimenting with sex and drugs and whatnot -- in search of some kind of transcendence.
It's a smaller film than "Black and White," more tightly focused on the experience and consciousness of one character, Harvard point guard Allen Jensen (Adrian Grenier). And there's something honest, and honestly clumsy, about the way Jensen and his two love interests, a cheerleader and a professor (Sarah Michelle Gellar and Joey Lauren Adams), sway between being self-assured and completely at a loss. But watching them bob and weave isn't very compelling or emotionally exciting. Ultimately, the sex and drug episodes feel like clichéd stabs at going "over the edge" and searching for enlightenment.
It's too bad, too, because Toback had something fresh at his fingertips, if only he had explored it: Basketball. What goes on in a player's head when he pushes himself, when he holds himself back, when he feels the high of working intuitively with his teammates, when he endures the weird, desperate spiral of letting them down or even of turning his back on them? How are hoops and sex and drugs tapping into similar veins? These are new takes on what the "edge" looks and feels like. They're questions that would have taken the movie over new ground.
They're the stuff of a movie that hasn't been made. Yet.
While you're waiting for it, check out "Black and White."
On the shelf
A former professor of mine tells the story of how his high school English teacher told his class John F. Kennedy had been shot and then read Walt Whitman's "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed," an elegy for Abraham Lincoln, out loud as a way for all of them to cope with the news. I've always liked that impulse: reading as memorial. I like the idea that reading's quiet commitment of time and attention is an especially decent and human gesture in response to death. And, like I said, it was the right thing to do with Williams because he's only ever really existed in my imagination anyway.
That's what Updike's piece is about: how people imagined Williams, for good and bad. It's a piece about watching him from afar. It's a story of how distance makes men look mythic, and of how it makes them seem bitter and foreboding, too. More than that, it is an essay by a writer trying to respect and describe and maybe even reach out across the distance between where he sits in the stands and where Williams stands at the plate.
Lines in it are so sweet I ache to have written them. Others seem so right to me I halfway think I did write them, or thought them, or have always known them.
I think you should read it.
On the small screen
Wonder no more, my friends. Tune in to OLN. There are 15 glorious stages to go.
On the web
Speaking of getting lost, they'll help you prep your summer baseball tour with a handy travel guide. Enter you zip code and the number of miles you're willing to travel and the reference engine kicks out every ballpark and baseball attraction within striking distance and provides a map to boot.
When you get home, you can contribute to their database by offering your comments and reviews.
Eric Neel reviews sports culture in his "Critical Mass" column, which will appear every Wednesday on Page 2. You can e-mail him at email@example.com.